Paramount Pictures holds licenses to hundreds of films: Indiana Jones, Star Trek, The Godfather, King Kong, Transformers, Top Gun, The Great Gatsby, Shrek, Beavis and Butt-head, and Crocodile Dundee. They have a catalogue that is the envy of the town. When they decided they wanted to open up their entire back catalogue to someone, they went with a game development studio that shares a warehouse space with a yoga school and a wood shop.
Other Ocean Interactive is a modest game development studio located on a quiet street in Emeryville, California -- you won’t find towering mascots from games they’ve made standing in the foyer or big displays celebrating the work they’ve done. You won’t even find a foyer. It’s an office crammed with old arcade machines (all owned by the individual game developers who work there), desks and whiteboards.
“Not long after we shipped Dark Void Zero for DSiWare, we got a call from an old friend of ours, Susan Lewis-Cummings,” says the head of development at Other Ocean Interactive, Mike Mika.
“We had worked with her before when she was at Rockstar. She said that she was now working with Paramount, and she’d like to talk to us about possibly going over their catalogue of films and finding something that might make a great XBLA/PSN game… they literally opened up their entire back catalogue to us.”
A warehouse in Emeryville
Other Ocean Interactive is a bit of an odd place. You could walk past the studio and completely miss it, and if someone mentioned the names of its developers you are unlikely to recognise them. But chances are you’ve played one of their games without even realising.
The core team of nine developers at the studio have decades of experience between them; some began their game-making careers with the original Game Boy. While many of them could easily take their wealth of knowledge and experience to larger studios developing AAA titles, they have chosen to stay at Other Ocean. The studio has made games like the XBLA version of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Ultimate Mortal Kombat on the Nintendo DS, Dark Void Zero for DSiWare, and Super Monkey Ball for iOS. Its individual developers, like Mike Mika, have also worked on the Call of Duty parody, Duty Calls, Super Street Fighter II HD Remix, Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix, Commando 3, Dropship, and Dr. Awesome. They may be a small studio, but they can deliver.
One of the reasons Paramount went to Other Ocean was because they knew that they could trust the studio to do something interesting with a licensed game. They invited Mike Mika to Los Angeles to go through their catalogue. He chose War of the Worlds.
“I had just finished reading War of the Worlds and I’m a huge fan of the original 1953 feature film,” Mika says.
“I just sort of leapt out at me, which was good because they were secretly hoping we’d do that. We agreed on one thing, though: if this was going to be made, it would not be a ‘movie game’. People may immediately think it was a couch-jumping game about Scientology or something -- there was that risk -- so if we were going to do it, it’d have to stand on its own.”
The second reason Paramount went to Other Ocean was a more interesting one.
“They really admired the independent game movement,” says Mika.
“This helped inform them on how they should proceed with production: smaller teams, smaller budgets, bigger ideas.”
Big, old, new, retro, enormous ideas
Of all the licenses Mika could have chosen, War of the Worlds was probably one of the trickier ones to turn into a game that people didn’t immediately associate with the 1953 movie or the Spielberg epic starring Tom Cruise. It would also be difficult to do a game that demanded such high levels of action and intensity with such a small budget. But the studio wasn’t fazed by this.
“We weren’t trying to look like the old movie or the Spielberg movie. In many ways, it was more like the production of, say, an indie film,” says Mika.
“You try to make something with limited resources and you’re forced to make hard decisions. Sure, we’d love to have the giant FX centrepiece, but we don’t have the manpower or budget.”
“And then, like an indie film, you might get lucky and attract great talent who also wants to work on smaller things. Enter Patrick Stewart (actor and narrator), Chris Huelsbeck (composer who has written music for Star Wars: Rebel Strike) and Christopher Fowler (English thriller writer). Suddenly, this really small game with a really small team has some A-List support. It’s like being the local cable news show that gets DeNiro to do traffic.”
Treating the game like an indie production, the team was able to take risks that they probably would not have been able to take if Paramount was pouring AAA amounts of money into the project. First, they decided to go 2D.
“Purely 2D, too,” says Mika.
“We looked to games like Another World for inspiration. At first, it was probably a hard thing for everyone to get behind because the context was so odd.
“It was kind of a ‘do what you know’ moment. We’ve all worked on a lot of platformers in our careers and, lately, we’d be jonesing to go back. Dark Void Zero whet our appetites and, honestly, it opened doors for us to convince people to do them. We basically challenged ourselves to take this really compelling, father of all sci-fi novels and figure out how to convey the emotion of it in a side-scroller.”
With limited resources, they had to use their understanding of platformers to squeeze everything they could out of the genre.
“How do you capture desperation and hopelessness?” asks Mika.
“There are ways that border on frustration. We’ve been told repeatedly that our game is really, really hard. Every time we hear that we go back and make it easier. The reason wasn’t that we wanted to create a really hard game, we just tried to capture a colour of the emotional palette. That desperation, that fear … sometimes translates to difficulty. That’s not always the best thing to do, but it’s what we struggled with throughout production.”
To further distance themselves from the movies, everyone on the team did a crash course on all things War of the Worlds. They also looked at Wells’ Crystal Egg, which was a sort of prequel to War of the Worlds. They looked for things that would be interesting in a game, not what would be interesting in a film, and gave prominent moments in the book more attention than they’d received in other media.
“We made a giant list of things we felt would be compelling from a gameplay standpoint,” he says.
“It was challenging because if we were going to maintain the voice and emotional palette, we needed to take away the urge to give the player a giant gun or a viral blaster or other typical gameplay mechanics. It was purely about survival.”
The player is without a weapon until the very final stages of the game when he is given an axe. Most of the time, it’s a puzzle game, but Mika prefers to think of it as a cinematic platformer.
“It has a lot more in common with games like Pitfall, Canabalt and Abe’s Odyssey than, say Shadow Complex or other modern Metroidvania games,” he says.
“It requires reflexes and visceral in-the-moment actions -- lots of classic jump or be squashed, timing puzzles, pressured jumps, etc. We’re not as puzzle-centric as, say, Limbo. It’s more about your ability to get Arthur (the main character) to react effectively to what’s coming at him, like when to make a jump from a collapsing building as a tripod bears down on you. If you jump too early, you’ll die. Too late, you’ll be zapped… hence the reputation it already has for being difficult.”
“Thankfully, you have unlimited lives!”
Old but new -- a modern day retro game
In many ways, War of the Worlds is a retro game in a new skin. For a brief moment, the game was meant to be a complete throwback to 16-bit Genesis/Amiga era games, both visually and aurally. This led them to their final look: a simple 2D parallax presentation with a faux 3D aesthetic.
“It’s hard to define what makes a retro game,” says Mika.
“I’ve looked at what we do, like Dark Void Zero -- I consider those to be games that pay homage to the games we grew up with and the games that informed us, but they are actually modern games.”
“If you go back and play Metroid or Mega Man, a lot of things have happened to games since then. They aren’t as holy as we thought they were. I’d like to think we set out to make a retro game today that embodies our memories of those games, and not the actually game itself. Most of those games aren’t actually better than what we have today,” he says.
Mika says that some games obviously stand the test of time, but he believes that much of the shine of old games is in their ballsiness. They weren’t afraid to be difficult and to let the player figure things out for themselves and, in the context of when and how they were released, those games innovated in ways no one had ever seen before. And that, he says, is what people remember -- that moment they went “Holy shit!?”
“We looked squarely at Flashback, Prince of Persia and Another World,” says Mika.
“They were games that, even today, have a pretty modern aesthetic and could convey a lot of emotion with very little. We knew we were going to be a small team with a short development cycle -- we wouldn’t be able to make games of that great scale (relatively speaking). Those games had some great mechanics and moments that we could take as inspiration for what we were trying to do… the sense of displacement and a world being turned upside down.”
But even old games that have done things right often need to be changed, or at least updated, to work in today’s games, says Mika.
“With the holy trinity of games we looked at (Prince of Persia, Flashback, Another World), if you look at the controls, the character movements were so precise and unforgiving. A jump that wasn’t pixel-perfect in an older game resulted in death.”
“We watched people in our studio try to play Flashback who had never played it before… they were very frustrated with the controls. I thought they were perfect, but there is a bit of an expectation that comes with modern interfaces that, when removed, is replaced by frustration. We had to be more forgiving.”
The oldest new game on the market
Back in the Emeryville warehouse, the year-long production of War of the Worlds is finally over and the game is ready to be sent off. The trailers and gameplay footage that have been released reflect what Mika has been talking about: the player looks small and insignificant to what’s happening around him. Unarmed with no super powers, all he can do is run. Platforms fall apart, buildings and crates explode, and the best Arthur can do is jump, dodge and search for safer ground.
Mika admits that every time he wraps up a game, he loses all confidence and thinks that nobody will like it. That said, he thinks the team at Other Ocean have taken an approach that will hopefully lead to players experiencing a “Holy shit!?” moment.
“I think the best games basically find one key emotion or mechanic that they can do a lot with -- like Tiny Wings with slide-jumping -- and perfect it,” he says.
“Limbo perfected physics puzzles, Angry Birds perfected the artillery duel mechanic, Fieldrunners perfected the tower defence gameplay, Bit Trip Runner perfected the forced scroll platform mechanic and, well, Pac-Man Championship perfected Pac-Man. We hope we do justice to classic style platforming.”
The War of the Worlds is available on XBLA and PSN on October 26.